NEWPORT, R.I. – As Shaquille O'Neal(notes) sold his prospective franchise on his job candidacy, he privately asked some executives and coaches: Would you rather go into Miami with me, or without me? History tells him it'll take elders to topple these Miami Heat, and there's such loathing lingering for old man Riles and his preening, shiny superstars.
"They got a great 1-2," says Shaq, who disdains Chris Bosh(notes) so much he refuses to make it three. And then he started listing the Celtics, the long list of young stars and old champions fighting the fade into twilight. "Everyone is young this, young that. I've been in [the NBA Finals] six times in the last [16 years] years, and I haven't seen a young team make it all the way and win it. They may look better, but they don't do what we do."
The Heat aren't that young, but perhaps Shaq is getting that old. Whatever happened this summer, he just knew he wanted to be in that fight on the shores of Biscayne Bay. Doc Rivers had ached over that Game 7 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, and one July night, flickering on his television, were LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes) and Bosh declaring themselves ready for the world on an elevated platform of a smoky arena stage. Paul Pierce(notes), Kevin Garnett(notes) and Ray Allen(notes) had never welcomed themselves to Boston so boldly, but this was a different day, a different franchise, a different world.
"That gave everyone an easy visual, but in some ways, you've got to have an arrogance if you're going to win," Rivers told Yahoo! Sports. "Hey, it's like you got Babe Ruth in some ways."
For all the disdain that comes from those in the Eastern Conference with the most to lose with the Heat's resurrection – Dan Gilbert, Otis Smith and Stan Van Gundy – Rivers is reverential when it comes to his old coach's genius. Rivers loves Pat Riley and considers it the most spectacular coup of his NBA life. "He has such a gift," Rivers said. "Let me put it this way: He's the best vision seller I've ever seen in my life. He knew that if it came down to selling a vision, everybody was at a disadvantage."
Riles was selling a vision born of a true track record. After all the disingenuous assassinations that Cleveland and Toronto officials delivered once they had failed to keep James and Bosh, there was no hiding the truth that they had nothing to sell them. No vision, no championship pedigree. Now, they just have sob stories and those framed $14 million trade exceptions mounted on office walls.
There's a reason Rivers is a champion: He acknowledges the greatness, the guts, of Riley to dream that big and deliver such a historic happening. It wasn't free agency that transformed the Celtics under Rivers, but those trades for Garnett and Allen in 2007. "Everyone anointed us," Rivers said. "You couldn't hold it back."
Perhaps no team has ever been a bigger target in sports, and that's so much of the reason these Celtics have come to camp so invigorated. Boston believes it can beat the Heat, and here's the most important reason why: Everyone has been mesmerized with what they're seeing out of Garnett. "Explosive again," Rivers marveled.
In practice on Wednesday, the Celtics watched Garnett do things they hadn't seen in two years. Once, he grabbed a rebound, fired the outlet pass and recovered to still beat every big man down the floor. No one witnessed that a year ago. Not once. He's been fantastic for the Celtics and that can change everything. Boston can go back to guards Rajon Rondo(notes) and Delonte West(notes) pressuring the ball again because they know Garnett has the quickness to shadow the ball on the backline.
The ability of Garnett to come all the way back from his knee issues of the past two years will, Rivers says, "make or break us."
Until his dying days, Red Auerbach told Rivers over and over: Fill your roster with agitators. Danny Ainge was one of the most effective the old coach ever had, and Ainge has now constructed his own roster with agitators big and small. Boston will come heavy, with toughness and ferocity, fearless of these Heat. Every day, Rivers reminds himself to tell the Celtics they're the defending Eastern Conference champions, because that's easily lost amid the relentless deification of the Heat.
Boston won't come out fast. Not with West suspended 10 games and Kendrick Perkins(notes) out until February and Rivers monitoring his player's minutes to make sure everyone's fresh for the playoffs. Rivers has kept it civil with the Heat, but he knows his players hate most of them, and this entire buildup brings a level of loathing that makes the coach feel like these are the old days. As much as anyone, Shaq knows his history, and he knows all these determined Celtics souls – all this depth that Ainge and Rivers call the best talent they've ever had in Boston – promise to challenge the Heat in a way no one else can.
"We'll continue to go at our slow pace and creep up on everybody," Pierce said.
Old man Riles and Wade and James and Bosh will be waiting, because Riley's vision was validated. Boston must go through Miami for a shot at the Lakers again. That summer haul never did move Rivers to criticize Riley, because the Celtics are full of talent and toughness. Shaq wanted to know: Would you rather go into Miami with or without me. This goes for all these Celtics, all these players who watched that preening summer spectacle with a thought in mind: Until you come through us, stop your celebrating and come get the defending Eastern Conference champions.